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Task managers

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Introduction

Personal task management software: why we need it, which ones I like and why. The important word here is personal as this will predominantly be around those applications that will help in your personal task management, and while skirting sharing tasks with others, team task management is a whole different subject.

Why should we care about task management software?

Clear the mind and ensure the relevant tasks get done at the correct time while freeing the brain to concentrate on a particular task free from the distraction of thinking about whether you may have forgotten a different task.

I currently have around 80 projects (Using the GTD definition: Projects are defined as outcomes that will require more than one action step to complete and that you can mark off as finished in the next 12 months) and 1.5k tasks; if I didn’t have some way of keeping track of all these then my head would likely explode and I would definitely spend most of my time wondering what I had forgotten and what I should be working on next.

I’m not the best at getting tasks and projects into any system; as an example, the writing of this is not in my task management system and it probably should be:

  • Project

    • Write post on task managers
  • Action

    • Mind map
    • Write outline
    • Flesh out
    • Review
    • Save draft for editing
    • Await edits
    • Make changes
    • Upload
    • Check links in upload
    • Publish
    • Share (this could then actually lead onto another project)

So many around…

There really are so many task managers around! How can one ever pick? …which is a good question and probably one of the reasons why people switch around so often.

I think a fair amount of it is down to personal preference and your needs:

  • How many tasks do you need to track?
  • Do Kanban boards work for you?
  • Do you need to share your tasks with others?
  • What OS’s do you need to be able to access them on? - this is a very important one that I have struggled with

Examples of task managers that serve different purposes

I have at some point used all of the above along with many more.

Why so few with start dates?

Over the years, there is one feature that I have come to realise is absolutely vital to me in a task manager and that is start dates.

Why is a start date so important?

  • A lot of tasks don’t really have due dates, so giving everything a due date reduces the importance of tasks that do have one.
  • Start dates enable you to only see what is relevant at that time.
  • A list of tasks in the 10s rather than a list of 1500+
  • Reduces stress - an impossibly long task list just causes anxiety and potential paralysis, often actually causing people to stop looking at their task manager altogether (another reason for people switching software so often).

When I am planning my day (or week), I do not want to see that I need to get worming tablets for my dog in 2 months’ time, I want to see those tasks that are due in a week’s time.

If I have to prepare a monthly report then I don’t want to be told about it until however-many days before it is due so that I can get the current information.

If I have sent a document to be reviewed somewhere and I may need to chase it, I need to give the person a little time and I don’t want to think about it until I feel comfortable chasing, so I set a start date for then and the task goes away until that time.

Apps for yourself (not team actions)

Which applications are my favourite and why it is worth remembering here that I am a Mac user who also needs to use a Windows machine (although less and less)

OmniFocus

OmniFocus is the task manager I use at the moment and while there are some things that could be better, I do find it really good and reliable, and now I have been using it I think I would struggle to switch to anything else. It is one of those applications that you hear a lot about (at least in the world of Macs) and can’t really get what the fuss is about until one day it clicks and it’s like a lightbulb comes on.

I am writing this in Ulysses and it wasn’t until I finally started using Ulysses that I got Markdown - two lightbulb moments in one!

Back to OmniFocus: why did I not use it more fully before?

  • It is not exactly a cheap piece of software, coming in at something close to the same monthly cost as a Microsoft 365 Business Standard licence.
  • It can be complicated when you first pick it up - if you are not familiar with GTD terminology then some of its terms can leave you baffled. In addition, on first use I don’t think the interface is very inviting.
  • There was no way to use it on a Windows machine, and it was too clunky using it on an iPad when a lot of my work was being done on a Windows machine.
  • They then came out with a web version but it was very basic and didn’t have custom perspectives, which meant that it really didn’t work for me.

Why now then?

  • They expanded the web version to include custom perspectives (these are - in simple terms - saved views which show you a slice of the actions you want to see at that time).
  • When that arrived I finally gave it a good go: I watched and read loads of guides and tips, set up the perspectives I felt I needed, and worked out a way to handle my tasks and surface them when required. I mainly only use two perspectives (I have way more than that) but with those two effectively an “Available” and “Today”, I can keep on top of things. As I said earlier, I am not as good as I should be at putting tasks in; however, the way it works it could cope with many more tasks and still enable me to stay on top of them (I may not get them all done but it would enable me to make those choices in an informed way).

Things 3

Things 3 is simply a beautiful-looking application - the interface in OmniFocus isn’t bad, but it doesn’t feel inviting. Things 3 sucks you in and makes you want to use and learn it. A few thoughts on Things 3:

  • Not quite as versatile/complicated as OmniFocus: this is both a good and bad thing. Out of the box, it works in a very similar way to the way I have OmniFocus set up; however, if you need it to work in a different way, you have limited options.
  • I don’t believe it has a project review system, which I feel is quite important when only surfacing tasks at certain times - this is, however, easily overcome with a task in each project saying it’s time to review the project.
  • No web app or Windows app - this has been an issue for me in the past as I needed access from Windows machines.
  • Things 3 has a much more relaxed/gentle stress-free approach to task management, not penalising you for what you have not managed to achieve. Federico Viticci says it better than I could:

My personal motivation for switching to Things boils down to this: the way projects and the Today screen are designed in Things fits well with my schedule, and doesn’t stress me out. Things has a “calm” interface that doesn’t turn overdue tasks red, making me feel guilty; projects are clearly laid out with a tasteful use of San Francisco, and further organization can be applied to a project using headings, a feature I’ve never seen in any other task manager. And among dozens of thoughtful touches, Things’ separation of Today and This Evening for the current day is absolutely in line with how I think about my typical day. In short: I want 2018 to be less stressful than last year, and Things is helping with the task management part.

MacStories

Nirvana

I used Nirvana for quite a while as it is a full web app and follows my way of working quite well; however, I moved away from it when the OmniFocus web app improved.

Nirvana is full GTD and makes no effort to hide or dilute that fact - you may have noticed that all three of the task managers I have gone into more detail about here are based around the GTD method of working. I am in no way a GTD person - I have never read the book - however, it does seem that it suits my way of working at least in part. and Nirvana certainly helped me to understand that.

Nirvana is based on being a web app and so it is totally cross-platform. It does now have desktop applications for Windows and Mac; however, when I last used them (they were in beta) there seemed little benefit to them. The mobile app on iOS is okay - it’s nothing amazing but it does the job. It seems quite good value - you can definitely get a long way with the free version. If you outgrow that then the both the monthly and annual plans are reasonable and they also offer a lifetime option. So why did I stop using it?

I found it clunky with lots of projects: finding the one you wanted to assign a task to was not quick, with no search feature in the assignment field; there are no attachment options which can add another step to getting the task done. It doesn’t work well with other applications - there is no automation or integrations - the closest thing to integration is an email address to forward emails into.

Apps without start dates

As said before, all three of the above task managers are based around the GTD method, and therefore have start dates. So what if you can work without start dates? Well the world really does become your oyster at that point! There are two obvious ones to me

First of all: Microsoft To Do. if you work in a Microsoft 365 environment with Outlook and Teams then its integration is excellent. While not the most powerful task manager on the block, it would definitely help keep things on track, and is yet another thing included with your subscription.

Second is Todoist, and oh how I wish it had start dates! I used Todoist for quite a long time: it integrates with what seems like everything, it has a full web API so you can write your own automations if you want, you can use Excel to template new projects, it is fully cross-platform, and you can also use it with a team.

No start dates though, they have example workflows of how it can be achieved and also explanations of why they don’t have start dates and why they feel you shouldn’t have start dates. Obviously I don’t agree and wish they would just add start dates, but if you do agree with them then it is definitely worth taking a look. And while you’re at it, have a look at their team communications application Twist,

Totally different

A few totally different apps that are worth a mention: I have used or tried to use all of these before and like the idea, if not the function.

TaskPaper

As the TaskPaper website states on its front page:

TaskPaper is a plain text to-do list that’s surprisingly adept. Getting things done since 2006.

If you like task lists and outlining then it is worth having a read around their site, it is a ‘transportable’ format so there are lots of ways to use it, OmniFocus both imports and exports to it. I use TaskPaper for certain things: it is sometimes nice to build quick plain-text list outlines when thinking through a project or process.

ClickUp

I feel I have to mention ClickUp, if only because I have had such a love-hate relationship with it. It is an amazing web application that is so diverse and versatile that it’s hard to even begin to describe what it is aiming to do. They say it is ‘one place for all your work’ and for certain teams and types of work that is probably true. Certainly its potential is massive and I have built a complete task management system in it for myself and used it for quite a while, but I was very much making it work the way I wanted to work rather than it naturally doing so. The biggest problem I had with it was reliability: it was depressing how unreliable it was. I even tried to work with them, but in a nutshell: sometimes something would work, other times it wouldn’t. Now around the time I gave up, they realised that their development push for new features was harming them and changed priorities to stability, speed and reliability, which is why I feel it deserves a mention, and certainly if you are looking at team tasks and workflows, it is worth a look.

Notion

Now this is the last one - and in my view a bit out there - but again Notion is another application that I think is great (and have done for years) but have never managed to make fit with my workflow, and I have tried on many occasions. Now this doesn’t mean it is a bad application (far from it) and really it is very good value - most people would probably never need to move off their free plan.

If you have any interest in seeing what Notion can do and how it might manage your tasks then August Bradley has built an entire system in Notion including task management and should give you some ideas.

As always, if you want to talk through how technology can help you manage your tasks, then get in touch and we can talk through your situation and find the best tools to help you.

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